Case to rule on pharmacy's liability in prescription drug abuse

A historic lawsuit pending before the Nevada Supreme Court may be the first case in the U.S. to address whether pharmacies can be held liable when a customer causes a fatal car accident. In 2004, Patricia Copening was flagged by the Nevada controlled substance taskforce for buying nearly 4,500 doses of prescription painkillers in a one year period. The state board sent letters to 14 pharmacies in the Las Vegas area warning that Copening could be abusing drugs. In June of the same year, Copening was driving erratically, and struck and killed a young man who was fixing a flat tire on the side of the road.

The case--Sanchez vs. Wal-Mart Stores et al--raises the issue about whether pharmacists should use confidential patient records to protect the public from customers who may have a history of abusing prescription medications such as oxycodone. Lawyers for the pharmacies argue that while drugstores may choose not to sell drugs to a customer, they have no legal obligation to turn away any customer to protect the general public.

In a statement about the case, Wal-Mart said, "While we're sympathetic to those injured in [Ms.] Copening's car accident, we agree with the district judge's decision that our pharmacists fulfilled their legal duties." Similarly, Wal-Mart said, "This is a deep personal tragedy for the families involved." Because the court hasn't issued its decision, "we don't believe it's appropriate to say more at this time," the company said.

CVS Caremark, Rite Aid and Albertson's Inc.--the parent company of Sav-On Drug--all declined to comment on the case. The Nevada Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision on the case by the end of the year.

Prescription-tracking systems are operating in 33 states, with the goal of identifying potential addicts and referring them for treatment, or getting law enforcement involved, if necessary. In 2007, retail pharmacies in the U.S. dispensed nearly 180 million prescriptions for opiates, including hydrocodone and oxycodone, up from about 40 million in 1991, according to congressional testimony last year from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

For more information:
- read this blog post from the Wall Street Journal